animal behaviour


st kilda

‘Three points of contact at all times. And if anybody falls overboard, just throw them a ring and scream.  Don’t go running for’ad to get us because the chances are we won’t find them’.  Ex Royal Marine and RNLI, Jock was a health and safety man to his branded anorak and shiny boots. ‘None of you have got your life jackets on properly.  ‘If your crutch strap is too loose, the jacket will ride up around your neck and strangle you.’  This was suddenly serious.  

St Kilda is about 90 miles away from the Isle of Skye and the only way we could get there and back in the same day was in the GotoStKilda speed boat, a modern sea going capsule with a small afterdeck from where we could watch the birds, the whales and the dolphins.  

‘If people don’t come on time, they’ll get left behind’, scowled Jock. So on the stroke of 7 o’clock, Willie, the skipper, a stocky, shaven headed man, who had bought land to farm in Tennessee, fired up the engines and soon we were all heading west, racing across The Minch and through The Sound of Harris and out into the Atlantic, Harris and Lewis receding into the mist behind us on a glassy sea.  A pod of dolphins came out to investigate, arcing above the reflective surface. The sun was bright on the sea, in contrast with the western horizon, which was a wide smudge of dark grey with the evanescent angular shapes of islands.  

Borarey is about 4 miles to the north and east of the main island of Hirta and includes the magnificent sea stacks, An Armin and Lee, home to the largest gannet colony in the North Atlantic.  We watched as, like large prehistoric seagulls with sulphur yellow heads and sharp pointed bills, they folded their wings and darted into the sea at 60 mph to spear the shoals of herring.  Gannets can live for up to 30 years, but after a while the accumulated impact of hitting the sea at 60mph causes them to go blind and dislocate their necks.  Returning with their catch, they are mobbed by Bonxies (Great Skuas), also known as pirate birds, which force them to disgorge their catch.  The people of St Kilda relied on nesting birds not only for their staple food, but also for the oil and feathers which they would trade.  The young men would scale the sea stacks late at night to catch the gannets.  It was dangerous work.  They would have to catch the sentry bird and wring its neck before they could harvest the other birds. 

Hirta, the main island, is formed from part of the rim of an extinct volcano and has the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The islanders would let each other down on horsehair ropes to harvest the fulmar petrels that nested on the ledges. It was such dangerous work, but only two men were known to have died, when the anchor man at the top of the cliff lost concentration and did not take up the slack while his climbing partner missed his foothold, fell about forty feet and catapulted him 600 feet onto the rocks below.

We docked in the sheltered harbour of Village Bay, clambered into the rubber Zodiac and went ashore, where we were greeted by the resident archaeologist.  He was a shy young man with glasses and baggy jeans, who informed us that St Kilda had been occupied for 3000 years. The names of the islands, however, are derived from the Vikings, who built the black houses for people to live in and cleats (stone huts with a turf roof) to dry and store the feathers and the birds.  The St Kildans lived in their black houses up until the eighteenth century.  They burnt peat in a central hearth, but, as there was no chimney; the smoke hung just below the roof and deposited a thick layer of tar, which functioned as a disinfectant.  They also had their own form of central heating.  A cow or sheep occupied the same space, separated by a partition.  The dung was collected and stored together with human waste and refuse in a large heap inside the doorway and then spread over the floor.  The rotting refuse provided underfloor heating, but was very smelly.  

The St Kildans did everything together and met for morning ‘parliament’ in the village street to decide what they would do that day.  Survival was a full time job. The men collected the birds, built the houses and cleats, while the women tended the vegetables, plucked the birds and cooked the meals.  The community shared all the work and the harvest, but they sent feathers and fulmar oil to the landowner on the mainland in return for materials for their houses and any provisions, which they did not have on the island. 

People continued to live on St Kilda until 1930 when the combination of disease, emigration and poverty forced their evacuation.  The last person to have lived on St Kilda died just three years ago. An epidemic of smallpox killed off half the population in the 1870s, then flu took its toll in the 1920s.  Many children  died of infertile tetanus, probably caused by the habit of anointing the umbilical cord with dung or fulmar oil.  The newer houses, constructed in the 1880s, had tin roofs which let the rain in, but these were not an improvement: the tin roofs would blow off and the storms blew the windows in.  They may have been cleaner but they were not as warm. People suffered, became ill and increasing numbers of survivors took the opportunity to leave.  

On Hirta, we took the opportunity to explore the island alone.  We only had two hours to explore the island alone and the cloud was too low to go to the tops of the hills. I went up to the gap – the low point between two hills below the cloud base and ate my lunch while watching the fulmars glide along the side of the cliffs past their nesting sites.  Then I traversed across the heather and tried to get some photographs of the resident Bonxies, which were intent on dive bombing me.  The whoosh as one dived within inches of my head was alarming.  Down in the village, some Fulmars  nested in the turf on top of the cleats while St Kilda Wrens, greyer and much bigger than the wrens we see on the mainland, nested in the walls, sharing the nooks and crannies with starlings.

The time passed too quickly and I wished I had opted to camp there for the night, but as we left, Jock said he had an extra treat for us. He took us  to the place near where the puffins nested and saw thousands of them floating on the sea,  their clown like faces incongruous in their black habits.  Puffins dive for sand eels which dangle on hooks set on the inside of their comical beaks, but they are also victims of the skuas, who fly in and delicately grab the dangling sand eels.  

We could not dawdle; Jock and Willie were keen to get back, but Jock had an announcement.  ‘Now just go on your Facebook and Twitter and tell all your friends about ‘GotoStKilda’. We need to have a full boat every trip so we can put food on the table.’  At £236 a shot, this was hardly the same privation as the original settlers, but we said we would. 

A breeze had got up while we were on land and as the boat bucked and dived through the swells, we staggered to keep our three points or more in contact.  But that just added a certain frisson to what had been an amazing trip.  

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From a distance, it looked like a rotten stick, covered in white lichen, such as you might see in Derbyshire, but no!   The lichen was moving.  I looked more closely.  The stick was covered with   hundreds of bright white insects,  each one decorated with appendages resembling flower parts, tiny stamens,  bifurcate stamens, delicate microscopic petals.  A wonderful mimicry, but where were the flowers?  There were none, just a stick covered in insects.  And what kind of insects were they?   I later found out they were the larvae of leafhoppers, the same miniature bugs that hide themselves in blobs of cuckoo spit by secreting foam from their anus.   

A magnificent butterfly, I thought,  so eye-catching in its dress uniform of red and black with white flashes, but it’s forewings were long, black and lacy and used for propulsion; only the hind wings were designed for display, like banners or the logo on tail of an airliner with its fuselage  painted the brightest red.   No butterfly this, but a magnificent lacewing, some two inches from wingtip to wingtip.   It flew in figures of eight but always returned to dip its abdomen in the same patch of wet sand and deposit a few more eggs.    

They call them inch worms, but they don’t slither along like most worms, they grab with their mouth parts then bring their nether regions up, folding their body like a paper clip before stretching forward again.  Not that they move very much; they lie in wait in the damp shade under leaves  for months and then drop off and attack themselves to any large mammal (like us), who comes past and brushes against the vegetation.  They are so sticky, wipe them off with your hand and, like burrs, they stick to your fingers.  But most of the time, you don’t know they’re there unless you knock  them and they burst in a pool of blood.  Leeches secrete an anaesthetic and an anticoagulant.  They inch their way into your clothing and secretly latch on to a tender area of naked skin and only detach when they are full and distended, whereupon they seek moisture and shade for their long digestion.

 

Caught in the sudden stare of the cat,

it clung, sticky fingered,

to an impossible beam

under a palm leaf thatch. 

and in freeze frame mime,

advanced along a leftwards flank,  

then turned, paused, and

Ignoring the claws,

sprung,

seized,  

crunched,

 grinned

and milked the applause .

‘A dog is a man’s best friend’, so they say.  They are our companions. They are, like us,  social carnivores that hunt in the daylight. We were made to collaborate. How much more effective we would have been as hunters with dogs to detect and chase our prey.  And dogs would have played a crucial role in the development of civilization by protecting our crops and home and herding our animals. 

But there’s more to it than that.  Dogs offer us their devotion.  To them we  are the pack leaders – to be appeased and served. Dogs are attuned to us, they obey our commands, respond appropriately when we point; they can be trained. Chimpanzees, although they have 99% of  our genetic code, tend to do their own thing, albeit intelligently. There is even a dog who has learnt 300 words and can fetch an object from another room, having only just seen a picture of it.  And think of how working dogs can be trained to herd sheep, to retrieve an animal that been shot, to sniff out drugs or explosives.   

Dogs make a deep emotional bond with us.  Studies have shown that when dogs look at images of humans, they are drawn to the left side of the face which expresses emotion more eloquently and has a direct connection with the emotional right side of the brain.  They tune into our emotions and can respond to our feelings.  They know when we are upset or angry. They feel it. And dogs are good for us.  We are more likely to survive a myocardial infarction if we have a dog and less likely to have another heart attack.  

Dogs have evolved an elaborate vocal repertoire to communicate with us.  Most dog owners can recognize at least six types of bark.  These are emotional signals; excitement, anger, aggression, hurt, fear, playfulness.  Brains scans have shown that the same area of orbito-frontal cortex lights up and we release the bonding hormone, oxytocin, when we look at pictures of dogs as when we look at images of children.  Our need to nurture runs deep. Dogs induce the nurturing behaviour in us they need for survival, and they also release oxytocin when they look at their owners and are fondled.  Dogs not only give but they induce unconditional love. 

DNA data has established that our domestic dog is descended from the grey wolf and came into existence about 100,000 years.  But wolves or wild dogs do not acclimatize to humans naturally. They cannot read our emotions and they don’t have the same vocal repertoire.  When wolf puppies are brought up with humans, they revert to wolves at about 8 weeks and become dangerous.  It takes many generations of selective breeding to get an animal that behaves like a dog.  Long term experiments conducted on Silver Foxes in Eastern Siberia has shown that domesticity can only be induced after 50 generations.  Only then do they behave like dogs. The strange thing is that in breeding out aggression, other characteristics change too, like the colour of their coats and the shape of their heads, their ears and their tails.  In fact, they become like puppies.  Selective breeding for domesticity favours juvenile characteristics.

This makes me wonder whether sexual selection in human societies over the many generations since civilization began has also succeeded in breeding out aggressive characteristics?   Are we just all big babies?   Have we bred domesticity in ourselves and with this passivity, laziness, neediness and a predisposition to obesity, heart attacks and diseases related to anxiety, such as Fibromyalgia and Irritable Bowel Syndrome?    

Contrast our open faced, needy population with the hard bitten images of tribal chieftains, warlords who seize and impregnate their women by force.  Such brutal sexual acquisition might perpetuate a much more ruthless typology until such time as civilization suppresses the behaviour that has induced it?  The aggressive no longer rule the earth,  at least outside the strongholds of Afghanistan, but have we become too tame, like the dogs?

This article was inspired by this month’s BBC Horizon programme.